Since the arrest of Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. – on suspicion of abducting with intent to sexually assault Hannah Graham, the missing University of Virginia student – two universities have confirmed reports that he was accused of sexual assault while a student in 2002 and 2003.
No criminal charges were brought in those cases, and Mr. Matthew left the schools quickly after the women made their complaints. Police are now investigating whether he may be linked to another sexual assault and several disappearances and murders of young women since that time.
The attention to this case could add another layer of urgency to the push by campus rape survivors and their advocates for colleges to take sexual assault complaints more seriously as a public safety issue. Too often, they say, complaints are treated lightly and offenders have been allowed to stay on campus or easily transfer and possibly rape again.
Research suggests the potential for repeat offenses is high. In a 2002 study of 1,882 men at an urban commuter university, 6.4 percent said in a confidential survey that they had committed acts consistent with the definition of rape. More than 60 percent of those men had raped more than once, and they averaged nearly 6 rapes each, noted the report, co-authored by David Lisak, a scholar and a consultant to universities trying to improve their responses to sexual assault.
Given that research, colleges need to be asking, “are we investigating in the right way and are we having hearings that aren’t excusing predatory behaviors?” says Laura Dunn, a campus rape survivor and legal advocate through the group SurvJustice.
Another key issue: Once there is a hearing – or even if a student leaves before a full hearing can take place – is information about the sexual misconduct put on students’ transcripts?
That’s considered a “best practice,” Dunn says, “but many schools don’t. Some campuses … will encourage students to drop out to avoid having to deal with it and record it … but a school can note there was an active misconduct [case] before the student dropped out.”
Dunn and other activists are hoping that state lawmakers will consider requiring such notations on student transcripts, but there are no such proposals being formally considered yet, as far as Dunn knows.
“The schools should be doing a code-of-conduct process even if the student drops out, and in my experience a lot of schools do that,” says John Clune, an attorney who represents victims of campus violence at the law firm Hutchinson Black and Cook in Boulder, Colo.
If a student is found responsible for sexual misconduct, many colleges do note that on a student’s transcript. Often it’s not specifically listed as a sexual assault, but rather as a conduct violation, Clune says. And some schools considering a transfer student don’t bother to find out what the conduct violation was.
“That’s not going to cut it – it’s like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Clune says, but there has not been a lot of pressure on colleges yet to reconsider how much they investigate previous misconduct of incoming students.
Across the State University of New York system, a notation of conduct violation is placed on students’ transcripts if they are asked to leave the school, and any institution receiving that transcript is encouraged to contact the school “and we would provide full information on the reason for that student being asked to leave,” says Frederic Pierce, public relations director for SUNY Cortland.
“We’re talking about incidents or patterns of behavior that would make them a threat to their fellow students. Clearly any type of predatory sexual behavior would fall under that category,” he says.
If a school official does have knowledge of sexual misconduct by an applicant, it is obligated under Title IX (the federal statute barring sex discrimination in education) to look into it and consider whether accepting the student would put others at risk, Clune says. The cases are rare so far, but “we are seeing schools getting sued now if they accepted a student with violations for violent crimes who then reoffends,” he says.
Clune estimates that half the campus cases he’s begun working on in the past three months involve allegations of a person committing multiple sexual offenses. “The issue is much bigger than I thought it was,” he says.
Clune is handling a lawsuit against the University of Tulsa alleging that a student recruited to play basketball there raped his client after two other women – at Tulsa and at his previous school, the College of Southern Idaho – had reported that he raped them. The university did not find that he violated the sexual misconduct policy.
“The discussion [in the case] will be, what was disclosed to Tulsa when the coach was recruiting him, and if they were [put on notice] did they do any investigation?” Clune says.
Officials at Southern Idaho acknowledged to USA Today that the school did not handle the complaint properly and said they’ve improved training.
In response to a Monitor request, the University of Tulsa sent an August statement outlining the campus’s policies and stating that, in response to the plaintiff’s complaint, “We conducted our investigation in a fair and timely manner, cooperating fully with local law enforcement.”
Schools have been grappling with how to implement a host of requirements detailed by a 2011 “Dear Colleague letter” from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX.
Colleges face the potential for lawsuits from students who file reports of sexual assault, as well as from students who say they were treated unfairly in the investigation or hearing of the misconduct case.
“Institutional sexual misconduct processes are generally designed to protect the privacy of the parties, but schools are permitted to disclose when a student is found to have committed a sexual offense in violation of [school policy],” says Bruce Berman, who represents colleges and universities in related cases as an attorney with WilmerHale in Washington.
Under the federal Clery Act, “schools are required to record crimes in a daily crime log, to issue timely warnings when there is a serious or continuing threat to students and employees, and to list various categories of crimes in an annual security report,” Mr. Berman says.
But not all sexual assault complaints are considered by the university to be serious or continuing threats, and when they are, often the warning is generic, rather than identifying the accused. In the effort to protect everybody’s rights, the schools often err on the side of protecting the accused, Clune says, and more women may be vulnerable to assault because they haven’t been warned about particular individuals.
At Columbia University this past spring, some students wrote and distributed “rape lists” naming men who had been reported for sexual assault – in some cases by multiple women – but not removed from campus through the misconduct policy.
There’s frustration among such student activists because there’s “an air of secrecy” around misconduct cases, Clune says, and with concerns about repeat offenders, “we’re seeing a lot of backlash from students saying something needs to happen.”
In Virginia, the search is still on for Ms. Graham, who disappeared in the early morning of Sept. 13. Matthew was arrested Sept. 24 in Texas and sent back to Virginia. His first court appearance on abduction and reckless driving charges was postponed until early December.
When Matthew was a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in 2002, he was investigated by Lynchburg police after being accused of sexual assault, but the case was not prosecuted because independent witnesses could not be found and the woman declined to press charges, the Washington Post reported this week. His last day at the University was the day the woman reported the sexual assault.
The school Matthew attended next, Christopher Newport University in Newport News, told the Washington Post through a spokeswoman that Matthew was accused of a sexual assault on campus on Sept. 7, 2003. Campus police investigated, but the spokeswoman did not tell the Post how the case was resolved on campus. Matthew left the university several days later.
Police have said there is a “forensic link” between the Graham case and the 2009 death of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, and the Associated Press reports that the FBI identified in 2012 a DNA link between the Harrington case and a 2005 rape of a Fairfax City woman.
Several unsolved disappearances of women in Virginia are also being reexamined by police in light of Matthew’s arrest, AP reports.